Korean government claims TruckSol isn’t a union — Korean courts, ILO say otherwise

Posted on : 2022-12-06 16:42 KST Modified on : 2022-12-06 16:42 KST
The administration says the collective action by truckers does not constitute a strike due to their working status
Containers fill a distribution center in Gumi, North Gyeongsang Province, to which entrance has been blocked off on Dec. 4 amid the ongoing strike by unionized truckers. (Yonhap)
Containers fill a distribution center in Gumi, North Gyeongsang Province, to which entrance has been blocked off on Dec. 4 amid the ongoing strike by unionized truckers. (Yonhap)

The Dec. 2 decision by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to intervene in connection with the South Korean government’s response to a strike by the Cargo Truckers’ Solidarity Division (TruckSol) was based on core conventions that went into effect in South Korea in April 2022.

The two conventions, No. 87 and No. 98, relate to freedom of association and protections for collective bargaining rights.

According to ILO conventions, TruckSol is a labor union that is entitled to guarantees of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

But the government continues to insist that TruckSol is not a union according to South Korea’s Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act (hereinafter Trade Union Act), while taking the view that the members’ collective boycott of transportation is not a “strike.”

The labor world has called on Seoul to stop attempting to brand the TruckSol members as “violating the law” and pursue a societal dialogue on the issue.

Responding to comments by the press that it has not been counting lost workdays as an indicator of the effects of the recent TruckSol strike, the Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL) explained, “In contrast with typical unions, TruckSol has not gone things such as establishment reporting according to the Trade Union Act, bargaining with employers, and work dispute procedures.”

“The collective transportation refusal does not represent a ‘dispute stemming from a disagreement in the process of bargaining with the employer on decisions concerning working conditions,’ and [the TruckSol strike] therefore cannot be seen as a ‘dispute’ according to the Trade Union Act,” it insisted.

TruckSol’s members are enrolled directly with the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU), which is an industrial union. According to the law, an industrial union is considered a single union, making it distinct from a “federation” representing a loose collection of unions with individual identities. Enrollment in an industrial union alone confers union member status.

South Korean law states that trucking workers and other people in “special forms of employment” cannot be seen as subject to the Labor Standards Act, but several court rulings have concluded that they should at least be viewed as workers who are entitled to form unions and engage in collective action.

In 2018, Korea’s Supreme Court broke with precedent in a ruling recognizing home-study teachers as workers according to the Trade Union Act. It named six bases for its decision, including the conditions that the labor providers’ income depends chiefly on specific employers, the employer benefiting from labor unilaterally decides the compensation and contractual terms, and the labor provider enters the market by providing necessary services for the performance of the employer’s business.

In January 2022, the Seoul Administrative Court cited the Supreme Court’s standards in ruling on the case of a delivery driver who had established a contract with a supermarket’s delivery business and delivered items ordered online to customers, only to have their contract terminated by the business in question.

In its judgment, the court recognized the driver as a worker according to the Trade Union Act. The business appealed and took the case to the Seoul High Court, where it ended up losing last September.

Even a high-ranking MOEL official conceded, “Based on the precedents, there are ample grounds for viewing [the trucking workers] as workers according to the Trade Union Act.”

Critics have also been raising issues over the failure to amend the law to ensure the association and collective bargaining rights of TruckSol members before ILO Conventions No. 87 and 98 took effect this April, following their ratification by the South Korean government last year. In their view, it’s a contradiction in terms for laws that violate the conventions to be used as a basis for denying that TruckSol is a “union.”

Since 2011, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association has been recommending that the South Korean government take action to ensure that all workers, including “self-employed” ones such as the drivers of large vehicles, are able to fully enjoy the right of freedom of association and the right to join any alliance or federation of their choosing without prior approval based on the rules for the organization in question.

By Jeon Jong-hwi, staff reporter; Park Tae-woo, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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